Bodies Are Not Metaphors: Talking with Brit Bennett

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About a year ago, a very friendly representative of an eco-friendly energy provider knocked on my door to extol the benefits of switching to a more sustainable source of energy for my home. Before he could even finish his spiel, his eyes landed on my copy of The Mothers, which lay on top of one of the various stacks of books that monopolize my living room.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about that book after I finished it,” he told me.

I didn’t have to finish following his gaze to know which book he spoke of. New York Times-bestselling author Brit Bennett has had a similar effect on the literary and media scene alike, capturing the attention of authors like Roxane Gay and Jacqueline Woodson. Actress Kerry Washington quickly signed on to adapt the critically acclaimed novel for the big screen. Now, four years after her momentous debut, Bennett is back with the marvel that is The Vanishing Half, released yesterday from Riverhead Books.

Stella and Desiree Vignes, twins who are inseparable as children, find their lives diverging from one another as adults, and not just in physical proximity: while one sister remains in the same small Louisiana town she once tried to escape, the other secretly passes as white in an affluent neighborhood in Los Angeles where her white husband knows nothing of her past. Though their lives are separated by miles, their fates overlap, especially when their own daughters’ lives intersect. The Vanishing Half is an intergenerational examination on identity, and what it’s like to grow up in a body you’ve been conditioned to feel ashamed of. It’s a poignant family story that doesn’t shy away from the intersections of race, class, and gender—all while capturing the reader’s heart and mind in a way only Bennett can.

I spoke with Bennett about her second literary triumph, in a conversation that dives deep into the effects of colorism, writing about shame, and avoiding body as metaphor, below.

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The Rumpus: In a 2016 interview with Jia Tolentino for Jezebel, you said that you grew up with your previous book, The Mothers. What is your relationship to the genesis of The Vanishing Half? Was it a story you always wanted to tell, or did it reveal itself to you over time?

Brit Bennett: The idea for the novel was sparked by a conversation with my mother who mentioned, off-handedly, a town she remembered from her Louisiana childhood where “everyone intermarried so that their children would get lighter.” The idea sounded almost mythical to me, the idea of an entire community working together to try to engineer a progressively lighter population. I became fascinated with the idea of a Black town governed by an obsession with skin color and I started to think about twins born in a place like that whose lives diverge to opposite sides of the color line.

I first jotted down the idea for the novel in 2015. I was finishing up grad school at the time and looking for my next project after I completed The Mothers. The Vanishing Half evolved drastically throughout the process, expanding beyond the twins across time and generations. But I always returned to the central idea of inseparable twin sisters whose lives go in separate directions.

Rumpus: You grew up in California, in a beach town that mirrors the backdrop for the events which unfolded in The Mothers. A lot of this book takes place in the Deep South. What was making that shift like?

Bennett: The Mothers isn’t autobiographical, but I did set the novel in the town where I grew up, which allowed me to lean into my own experiences and observations to flesh out the world. But The Vanishing Half takes place in a time when I wasn’t alive and in a place where I didn’t grow up, so the experience of creating the world of the story was quite different. For a lot of the Louisiana sections, I wrote about the place in the way that my mother described it to me in stories, which is neither the Louisiana that currently exists nor the Louisiana that existed historically. So I think this book is a shift to the realm of memory and imagination.

Rumpus: What does your mother think of Mallard? How close was it to matching up with her recollection of the Louisiana she grew up in?

Bennett: She likes the book but recognizes that it is a work of fiction. So, she sees glimmers of stories she’s told me about growing up but also knows that the book is mainly from my imagination.

Rumpus: Jude, Desiree’s daughter, eventually leaves Mallard for California. Did your upbringing in California influence those parts of the book, and, if so, how?

Bennett: I lived in Los Angeles for a few years after graduate school, but that’s also the city where my father grew up. His upbringing was very different from Jude’s college life at UCLA, but I was aware that I was writing about Los Angeles at the time when my father would have been around Jude’s age. I just liked the idea of LA being a bit of an oasis for her, a different place from the small, insular town where she grew up. The city is so sprawling that it became a natural place for characters and stories to converge. And of course, in a book about characters who reinvent themselves, it’s thematically helpful that Los Angeles is a city known for make-believe.

Rumpus: I love that. It’s also interesting to me that Kennedy, Stella’s daughter, is the one that leaves Los Angeles for New York City. I know she’s pursuing the stage, but it’s clear, too, that she wants to distance herself from her mother. Do you think that we need to remove ourselves from the environment we grew up to reinvent ourselves? Conversely, do you think reinvention is possible by remaining in a circumscribed space, like Mallard?

Bennett: I think we’re all constantly reinventing ourselves, no matter where we are. I’ve barely left my apartment during the quarantine and I feel like a completely different person than I was two months ago. But I do think that geographical movement can be an impetus for change, or at least, free us to try out new identities. Stella eventually has to move away from Louisiana in order to feel like she can truly start over fresh. Similarly, Kennedy’s move to New York also affords her a new start. She moves in with a Black boyfriend. She moves to a Black neighborhood and enjoys the idea of “slumming” there because this new life is so far from her upbringing. The biggest difference is that Kennedy thinks of her reinvention as temporary—she can play at being a starving artist because she always knows that she can go back home to Brentwood. But Stella decides from the beginning that there is no turning back. For Stella, moving across the country is what finally closes the door to her past.

Rumpus: Colorism is prevalent from the beginning of the book. Is this something you wanted to explore and write about from the start? 

Bennett: I think what became most interesting to me about colorism is just the embodied experience of it. There are lots of books to be written about the larger, sociological implications of colorism—I think often of the jumpsuit Andre 3000 wore during the Outkast reunion tour that said “across cultures, darker people suffer more. why?”—but I wanted to explore this intimate form of violence that surrounds and is experienced in the body.

Jude grows up in a place that considers her skin ugly and shameful. What does that do to her as a child and what does that continue to do even once she’s grown older and left this town behind? One of my guiding principles during the writing process was “bodies are not metaphors.” It was very important for me not to ignore actual suffering in order to use characters as a launching point to think about abstract social concepts. Even as I explored those themes, I always wanted to return to what it feels like for the characters to move through the world. What does it feel like to grow up believing that your body is wrong?

Rumpus: I want to focus on this guiding principle a bit: “bodies are not metaphors.” By this, do you mean that a character’s emotional foundation needs to be laid down before exploring certain themes?

Bennett: I just mean that I want to engage with my characters as people, not symbols. I think it can be easy to intellectualize “identity” and want to gaze at it from a safe remove, instead of thinking about how identity shapes our material lives. For example, there’s an image of a segregated cemetery in the book, which is based on a story I heard from my family, about a local church facing controversy for cleaning headstones on the white side of the cemetery and not the Black side. It was such an absurd scandal, but at the same time, it was an example of the way that race literally affects our lives from the cradle to the grave. I didn’t want to lose sight of that reality.

Rumpus: Colorism is obviously a topic with a lot of depth and nuance. We can talk all day about how it is a by-product of white supremacist patriarchy and its values, whose roots were planted during colonialism. How does fiction, for you, help convey the cancerous impact of something like colorism on Black lives?

Bennett: I find myself often frustrated with conversations about colorism, which frequently go in a few predictable directions: pathologizing Black people (“how could they do this within their own community?”) or devolving into a light skin versus dark skin debate over privilege and acceptance. Neither of these conversations are interesting to me. For one, colorism is not exclusive to Black people; in lots of cultures, if not most of them, it’s preferable to be lighter-skinned than darker-skinned. And second, colorism emerges as a result of white supremacy, so it’s ridiculous to describe it as petty infighting instead of acknowledging the history of white racism that has created and enforced long-lasting cultural beliefs about skin color.

I think fiction allows me to avoid these conversations by focusing on specific characters and how they experience colorism in the body. I think what surprised me most is realizing that the emotion I kept returning to is shame. Because of her upbringing, Jude feels ashamed of being dark-skinned, even though she understands intellectually that dark skin isn’t bad. So, then she also begins to feel ashamed of her own shame. Shame is the hardest emotion to write because it resists facing itself. We find it hard to look directly at the things that cause us shame. As a kid, I used to wonder why conversations about skin color grew so heated and emotional, and later I realized, oh, it’s shame. That’s the thing we’re circling around, that we’re not talking about, that we can’t quite look at. The secret shame of living in a body that is punished for existing.

Rumpus: Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, is a doe-eyed blonde, but she eventually learns the truth about her mother, and herself—that she comes, partly, from a Black family. What was getting into Kennedy’s head like?

Bennett: As a writer, my favorite characters to explore are always the characters who are least like myself. So naturally, I loved writing Kennedy. For one, she’s chatty and funny. There’s a kinetic energy to the way that she never stops talking, and I actually wrote her section in the first person at one point to see if I could capture some of that chatty energy even inside her thought process. Beyond her voice, I also just love how she can alternate between self-awareness and self-delusion. When we first meet her, she has no idea about her mother’s past, and I wanted to explore her ignorance. Does she ever suspect her mother is hiding from her? And what would happen if she ever discovered the truth? Does this change how she thinks about herself?

Rumpus: In The Mothers, the female churchgoer loomed as this collective voice, streaming the narrative forward. In this book, you write from a number of perspectives. How did a shift in perspective influence The Vanishing Half?

Bennett: I think I’m always interested in playing with different perspectives because as a reader, I love novels that tell stories of communities. I love unexpectedly diving into the perspective of a new character who will inevitably turn out to be far more interesting than I had originally imagined. I always knew that The Vanishing Half would be a story centered around twin sisters, but in the early drafts, I realized I also wanted to spend time with their daughters. I also became interested in the men in their lives, like Early and Reese, and wanted to spend time there, too. At first I thought of the book volleying between both branches of the family but the story became more like a baton being passed from character to character, which felt more natural and lifelike. We meet people, they pass through our lives and continue on their own paths. But the story goes on.

Rumpus: Reese, who is Jude’s boyfriend, is trans. You write him with such care and sensitivity. Why is Reese’s transness significant in the world of this story? How does he relate to your aforementioned guiding principle? 

Bennett: To me, the laziest version of this book would have reduced Reese to metaphor and treated him as a stand-in for theme. But it was always crucial for me to write Reese well. One, I didn’t want to contribute to the long tradition of cis writers dehumanizing trans characters. And two, Reese is such an important supporting character in the book. His relationship with Jude serves as the romantic heart of the whole novel and to believe in a love story, you have to first believe in the characters. So I just wanted to lean into everything that’s specific about Reese and think about why he and Jude would be drawn to each other. At the same time, I never wanted Reese being trans to be a conflict in this relationship. I hate when stories treat who we are as narrative problems that have to be managed or solved. To me, what was far more interesting was navigating the other tensions in this relationship, over money or intimacy or ambition. So maybe that was another maxim: bodies are not problems.

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Photograph of Brit Bennett by Emma Trim.


Greg Mania is the author of Born to Be Public, forthcoming from CLASH Books on August 25, 2020. Follow him on Twitter: @gregmania. More from this author →